Turning Grief into a Legacy
In his 48 years of life, physics professor Sujeev Wickramasekara made an immeasurable impact on his peers and his students. When he died in December 2015 at the age of 48 of a sudden cardiac event, his wife Tammy Nyden, associate professor of philosophy, hoped to continue his impact through a memorial scholarship fund. Paula Smith, professor of English, and her husband Paul Tjossem, associate professor of physics, knew right away they wanted to make that hope a reality.
Smith and Tjossem knew Wickramasekara from the time he arrived at Grinnell in 2005. Tjossem actually knew him a little longer. “I was a member of the search committee that reviewed his application for a faculty position,” he says. “Even on paper, Sujeev made an immediate impression — here was a scientist, so early in his career, who was already a first-rate theorist and even had prior experience teaching at a liberal arts college.
“From the start, our friendship focused on teaching,” Tjossem says. The College’s workshop physics curriculum — discovery-based courses that involve more extensive laboratory and group work than traditional physics classes — was a major draw for Wickramasekara. “Over time, he and I worked together on department projects and consulted on whatever we were doing,” says Tjossem. “We were next-door office mates, so especially when he lived in Grinnell, that meant we talked every day.”
Smith was dean of the College when Wickramasekara chaired the physics department. “From working with him and seeing what he accomplished, I could see that Sujeev represented all that we hope from a liberal arts faculty member,” Smith says. “He was a spectacular researcher who devoted himself to teaching while also taking on service to the College.”
The scholarship that Smith and Tjossem created will be awarded annually to a student or students with financial need, pursuing a degree in physics. In particular, the scholarship aims to aid students who come from traditionally underrepresented populations.
This year Rebecca Wong ’17, a physics major from Highlands Ranch, Colo., received the first Sujeev Wickramasekara Memorial Scholarship. She had the chance to have Wickramasekara as a lab instructor only for a semester, but she remembers him fondly. “He was really thorough when he gave out lab instructions. If you had a question and raised your hand, he was immediately over to you to help you understand, and then he’d shoot off to the next student,” she says. Wong remembers his passion for physics and his drive to help students not only understand what he was teaching but also to enjoy it. “It’s bittersweet getting this award,” says Wong. “He was so young, had accomplished so much, and still had so much promise.”
Although the scholarship does not lessen the grief of Wickramasekara’s friends and family, it does extend his impact on students’ lives. “One of the hardest things about losing Sujeev is to think about the hundreds of students who would have benefited from his teaching and mentoring,” Tjossem says. “To receive this scholarship will be an honor and a reminder for students about his legacy.”
To learn about creating a memorial fund, please call the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, 1-866-850-1846, and ask for Jayn Chaney ’05.